The honeymoon death that led to the pursuit of justice across two continents

EIGHT years after a fairytale wedding to his princess bride, Tina, Alabama packaging company salesman Gabe Watson will go on trial for her murder next week.

An extraordinary saga has led to this point. Set against a backdrop of animosity between the families of the couple, the case has sharply divided friends, neighbours and legal teams.

Allegations of murder against Watson are based on a theory originally put forward by the Townsville police, who investigated Tina's death after she drowned while scuba diving on her honeymoon.

Tina Thomas, 26, had suffered from regular heart palpitations until a curative surgical procedure two years before her October 2003 wedding. She died in what Queensland police and Tina's family believe were sinister circumstances.

Gabe Watson's defence lawyers in Australia and the United States maintain he made a bad decision to leave her and seek help when she panicked and got into difficulty about 15 metres under water, instead of using his rescue diving certification training to save her.

Whether Tina drowned in a tragic accident or whether the burly, 192-centimetre-tall Watson planned his crime in Alabama and then travelled across the world to carry out the murder of his bride on their Great Barrier Reef honeymoon 11 days later, as alleged, is what a jury will have to decide.

At the heart of the saga is this question: Why did Tina Thomas drown five minutes into her first ocean dive above a wreck with her regulator in place, plenty of air in her tank and her dive equipment working perfectly?

Many factors are involved. These include the workings of Watson's dive computer, which recorded his ascent time of about two minutes, and the strength and direction on October 22, 2003, of the current along the stretch of Coral Sea where the divers were viewing the wreck of the SS Yongala, which sank in a cyclone in 1911. Important too are the speeds and angles of ascent by both Watson and Wade Singleton, the master scuba instructor who scooped Tina off the seabed and carried her to the surface from 27 metres deep in a dangerously rapid 90 seconds. Apart from the complex picture that has emerged of the fatal dive, also to be assessed are the multiple versions that an at times virtually inarticulate Watson gave to police - as well as to other divers, family and friends - in the aftermath of Tina's death.

Leading the charge towards this trial - which will be held despite claims, yet to be considered by the presiding judge, of double jeopardy, under which a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offence or conduct - have been Tina's parents. Insurance training executive Tommy Thomas and his wife, Cindy, have been relentless in the public pursuit of their former son-in-law, who has since remarried.

When Watson pleaded guilty in Queensland to manslaughter in June 2009 instead of facing an expected murder trial, the grieving Thomases and many supporters were enraged. They supported the move later that year by the then Alabama attorney-general Troy King, who instituted an investigation into whether there was evidence to put before a grand jury in Watson's home state for capital murder. Watson was later charged on two counts of capital murder on the seventh anniversary of his wife's death soon before he was released from jail and deported from Australia in late 2010.

The coming trial, already deferred twice because of cuts in Birmingham's Jefferson County Court security staff - part of the lead-up last year to the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history - will be the culmination of a concerted five-year campaign by her parents to achieve ''justice for Tina''.

For the Watson family, also devastated by the loss of a newly acquired daughter-in-law, it has meant at least $500,000 in legal fees and expenses to date defending their eldest son. On legal advice, they had remained mute until his release from jail, despite an avalanche of rumours and allegations discussed for years by online scuba forums, in comments after media stories and on social media sites such as Facebook.

So far, Queenslanders have footed the bill for a long investigation, a four-week inquest, a Court of Appeal hearing and Watson's 18-month incarceration. The federal government billed him for deportation costs on his release. This week, Jefferson County taxpayers will host Australian witnesses, including the two investigating detectives and Wade Singleton who, with others, worked on Tina for more than 40 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt at resuscitation.

American witnesses are likely to include Tina's colleagues at the department store where she worked; divers on the Spoilsport, the catamaran on which Gabe and Tina were to spend the second week of their honeymoon; and Dr Stanley Stutz.

Stutz, now living in Rhode Island, was an emergency doctor working at Townsville Hospital at the time. While descending to the historic, isolated Yongala wreck site during a dive class from another boat, he witnessed a larger male diver holding another diver he was sure was a distressed Tina in an ''embrace''. The diver's arms were apparently under hers but the line of sight was blocked. After no more than 30 seconds, if that, they split apart and Tina sank ''into the blackness'', Stutz told the inquest on her death that led to the murder charge against Watson. Police said Stutz's description was inconsistent with Gabe's versions.

Last year, two veteran Australian dive experts - who were initially contacted by investigators, but not called at the inquest - publicly denounced the murder theory. One claimed that Gabe's US training as a rescue diver and his diving experience had been overblown. The other, a leading expert on diving fatalities, told The Saturday Age that Tina had been grossly overweighted, causing her to sink, and that Gabe's descriptions to police of what had happened under water fitted with a typical panicking diving accident in which the victim's weights were not dumped and the dive vest was not inflated to assist an ascent.

As a prospective jury pool of 70 assembles on Monday - more than double the usual number for capital murder trials in Alabama - Tina's family and friends will arrive in force wearing purple ribbons as a symbol of ''justice for Tina''.

Watson's family and friends will likely sport blue rosettes, the same as those tied to front doors, verandah posts, trees, car bonnets and letterboxes to show support while Watson was in jail in a Queensland correctional facility after pleading guilty to manslaughter for being what Queensland prosecutors called a ''bad dive buddy''.

Watson was deported to the US only after Australia had received guarantees that he would not face the death penalty should he be convicted on his return.

The legal teams from both sides have been in the media in the lead-up to the trial. Alabama's assistant Attorney-General and chief trial prosecutor, Don Valeska, has the reputation of having sent more defendants to death row than any of his colleagues. He has served under nine attorneys-general in his career and has stated several times his confidence that the circumstantial case will lead to a conviction. ''He let his wife drown on their honeymoon and made no effort to save her. The facts speak for themselves,'' he told A Current Affair last year.

Last week, the leader of Watson's three-man team, Brett Bloomston, told CNN that Tina's death was an accident. Gabe Watson was ''a sweet guy'', a ''big teddy bear'' who made a ''split-second'' decision to leave her to get help. ''Tina's death was a tragedy for all,'' he said, including her husband who had been living for years with baseless murder allegations stemming from ''bumbling investigators''.

Before he even gets to the Mel Bailey Criminal Justice Centre on the edge of downtown Birmingham - where the 12-person jury will consider the evidence each day - Watson will have to run the gauntlet of local and international media (primarily Australian) who will be there to record the next, hopefully final instalment, in the case.

Monday would have been Tina's 35th birthday.